Microscopic Perspectves

January 31, 2007

A three-dimensional ultrasound scanner developed by Duke engineers, which could find application in various medical settings, might eventually enable surgery to be performed by robots without actual surgeons present, a capability that could prove valuable in space stations or other remote locations.

The research team, which included Stephen Smith, professor of biomedical engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, and Eric Pua, a Pratt graduate student, used 3-D ultrasound images to pinpoint in real time the exact location of targets in a simulated surgical procedure. That spatial information then guided a robotically controlled surgical instrument right to its mark.

The scanner could be coupled to the surgeon-operated robots that are increasingly being used for performing minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries on the heart or other organs, Smith says. Among other applications, surgeons could use the 3-D scanner to spot potential tumors in real time during biopsy procedures, making a diagnosis of cancer harder to miss, the engineers say. Physicians today must rely on still images, such as CT scans, of a patient's organs to locate lesions suspected to be cancer.

As artificial-intelligence technology improves in the coming decades, the scanner might even be able to guide surgical robots without the help of a surgeon, the researchers say. The 3-D ultrasound probe has yet to be tested in human patients, Smith says, but he adds that his team believes the technology is ready for clinical trials. The results of the research were reported in the Journal IEEE Transactions on Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control.

Last year, the team reported another advance: a 3-D ultrasound device including 500 tiny cables and sensors packed into a tube twelve millimeters in diameter—small enough to be inserted through the incisions required for laparoscopic surgeries. The researchers then showed that the device could produce 3-D images of the lab animals' beating hearts.